"I suppose I'm being hopelessly old-fashioned," people often begin when they are reporting other people's bad manners. Miss Manners always knows from that opening that the writers are confident of being exonerated. In fact, they feel positively charming.
Believing themselves to be firmly in the right, they are counting on Miss Manners to declare them properly modern, in direct contradiction of those self-accusations. At worst, they figure, she will confer on them an air of aristocratic conservatism, arising from the belief that well-bred people never change.
Then there are the letters, similarly bemoaning widespread rudenesses, in which the complaints are introduced with, "Am I senile to expect . . . ?"
These people do not expect Miss Manners to say, "Oh, but senility is fashionable now," or, "Don't worry about it -- I'm going senile, too."
They are not even confident that she will uphold their position. But they are going to stick with it anyway, and the invocation of senility, far from suggesting that they are harmless, is meant to be threatening.
While the "hopelessly old-fashioned" person wants to be pictured in superior isolation, the "senile" one represents himself as about to go on the rampage with a briar cane.
In her doddery way, Miss Manners has taken to pondering all this and musing about the true relationship of time to manners and fashion to social standards.
She knows from experience that when people use the word "nowadays," they want exemption from decent behavior, as in "Nowadays, are you expected to answer invitations?" But when they say "anymore," they want to reestablish standards of behavior, as in, "Are people expected to answer invitations anymore?"
"This day and age" can go either way. It can be used either to deplore a world without standards ("In this day and age, what do you expect?") or to deplore the world's being cluttered up with obsolete requirements ("Surely in this day and age you don't expect . . . ").
But what do they mean by all this?
Miss Manners has a difficult time believing that anyone could be so naive as to believe either that manners never change or that human behavior changes so completely over time that the very premises of manners are subject to revision.
Real changes happen very slowly, usually to accommodate widespread changes in philosophy or technology.
For example, chivalry introduced the idea that the strong should yield to the weak, a reversal of the more natural and logical, but less civilized, system of the weak yielding to the strong. We still accept that order, but the classification of women as weak has been challenged, and we will probably soon settle on a version of chivalry by which the young yield to the old.
The invention of the telephone, in connection with the decrease in household servants who could act as buffers, produced changes in the etiquette of visiting. Dropping in, once a requirement of etiquette, became a violation of etiquette.
But these are not the sorts of change claimed by the writers Miss Manners has been quoting. Whether they are supporting or fighting change, they are all operating from the absurd notion that human nature itself and the nature of the universe have changed.
What caused an entirely new world to appear is left vague. Perhaps there is somehow "less time" in the modern world than the old, or perhaps it was that recent invention, sex, that made the difference.
In any case, they expect or fear a new etiquette based on the assumption that there is an entirely new human being, that people no longer care to have their generosity acknowledged by gratitude, that hosts no longer need to know how many guests to expect, and so on.
Age is not a factor in being able to see the absurdity of this and its weakness as an excuse for not respecting the timeless decencies of civilized life.
The real factor is whether, young or old, you have the sense with which you were supposed to have been born.
Q. I am writing to suggest that you address the matter of men kissing all women, whether they have a kissing acquaintance or not.
I appreciate a light kiss on the cheek from men whom I have known for a while and with whom my husband and I have a very friendly relationship. I do not care to be kissed by someone I hardly know.
Last year my boss took me and a young female colleague out to lunch for Secretaries Day. The maitre d' was very attentive to all the tables with secretaries and bosses, and when we rose to leave, he came to our table, took my hand and then the hand of my young colleague, and kissed each of us on the cheek. I was too surprised to say anything.
Last week I thanked a gentleman whom I do not know for inviting me to a small reunion party for persons who used to work in his office. He took my hand and then kissed me on the cheek.
I think men today feel that kissing a woman is the polite thing to do. I like to be kissed -- by my husband, my son, my son-in-law and all my male relatives, but I do not like any man to assume the privilege because he mistakenly feels it is polite. I wish they would wise up.
A. Miss Manners heartily joins you in deploring the prevalence of phony friendship that has debased both the dignified American greeting of the handshake and the intimacy of the kiss.
The cheek, as it were, in this being done by strangers and even those one meets in a nonsocial capacity, such as the restaurateur, borders on the insulting. It presumes that a lady is grateful for any attention at all that simulates the romantic. 1985, United Feature Syndicate